“East is at the top of the map, south on the right, west is at the bottom and north you’ll find here on the left … ”
I stood looking at the guide in Hereford Cathedral who was uttering these frankly insane words and gripped my OS map tightly. About to set off on a three-night e-bike pilgrimage on the Golden Valley Pilgrimage Way (GVPW) – with my toddler in tow (literally, courtesy of a hired trailer) – I was relieved that cartography has come a long way since the Mappa Mundi, the largest medieval map in existence, was drawn in the 1300s.
In the past decade, pilgrimages such as this have experienced a boom, but I didn’t have the time required for the 59-mile week-long hiking route. Thankfully, the route’s creator, Rev Simon Lockett – who a few years earlier brought his parishioners together by driving a VW campervan to serve as their “Rolling Rev” – had a brainwave during lockdown: make a cycle-friendly version for those short of time.
As well as plotting the 82-mile two-wheeled trail with stops at churches to sleep in, Lockett also ensured locally produced refreshments could easily be sampled en route. So with a pilgrim passport collected at the cathedral, and a 21st-century map programmed into my phone, I took to the saddle to worship at the altar of Herefordshire cuisine and countryside.
The day was punctuated by sampling local flavours, from ice-cream at Rowlestone Farm to coffee and gin at the Black Mountain Botanicals and roastery
I sampled Butty Bach ale from the Wye Valley after leaving the cathedral and pedalling out of the suburbs and eventually, after about seven miles, over to the Kilpeck Inn. Here, a semicircular Romanesque church and its graveyard supplied my two-year-old with space to run around while I enjoyed the shade and admired the decorative corbels over a drink.
Quiet roads led us further into the West Midlands landscape. We passed through Kentchurch – home to the legend of Jack o’ Kent, a Welsh folklore figure who bested the devil – whizzed by a deer park where antlers rose above the hedges and my son giggled in delight, and ended the day in Ewyas Harold for dinner at the Temple Bar Inn.
After filling up on a homemade veggie burger and macaroni cheese respectively, my boy and I took a two-minute freewheel to St Michael and All Angels Church – our home for the night. After retrieving the key from the safe near the door (the code is emailed to you the day of your booking) we opened the huge wooden door and went inside.
The good thing about staying in churches with a small child (aside from the number of nooks they offer for exploration) is that they tend to have boxes of toys used for Sunday school. These kept my son entertained while I set up our camping mats and sleeping bags on the carpeted section near the altar and started charging the e-bike by the font. After walking to the adjacent community hall to brush our teeth, we locked the door and lay down for our first night beneath holy rafters.
“I can see rainbows, Mummy,” came my toddler’s angelic tones minutes later. I looked to see the setting sun streaming beams of light through the stained-glass window on to his pillow – there are no curtains in churches – and was forced to undertake an emergency reshuffle of our sleeping arrangements.
We thankfully both slept soundly after that, only waking as dawn began to illuminate our grand bedroom once more.
I set my bike to turbo to climb a hill up to our first stop the next day: Ty Gwyn Cider, run by a former musician called Alex Culpin (whose band Tiny Monroe played Glastonbury and supported the likes of Radiohead, the Pretenders and Suede in the 1990s).
“Making great cider is like making great music” he said, pouring me a thimbleful. “It takes passion, practice and patience.”
Alex only uses local apples and presses everything himself to use 100% juice. The result is a rich tipple that reminded me of brandy.
With a 35-mile stretch ahead, I couldn’t try much, so I said goodbye and set off along the pilgrim path. The day was punctuated by more local flavours – from ice-cream at Rowlestone Farm (for nearly 10 years tasty treats have been made from its cow’s milk) to coffee and gin at Black Mountain Botanicals and roastery (started by a couple who moved here from Bridgend six years ago, “walked into the Bridge Inn at 4pm knowing no one and left at 4am knowing everyone”).
My toddler fell asleep on his air mattress after a picnic dinner, cocooned within a box pew – his own little bedroom
Landmarks came thick and fast – shapely Skirrid Fawr, said to be the Devil’s Table; the atmospheric outlines of the Black Mountains; and the church at Clodock, where we scouted for St Clydawg’s well – before we reached our sanctuary at Dorstone’s St Faith’s Church (with the transept offering a cosy, and dark, hidden nook for sleeping, including raised camping beds and heaters) and dinner at the Pandy Inn.
The next day we took a short detour to see the still-being-excavated ruins of Snodhill Castle (one of the earliest examples of Norman architecture), which suitably tired out toddler legs, followed by a game of hide and seek at Arthur’s Stone – a Neolithic burial chamber said to hold the imprint of a giant’s elbow within its slabs.
We followed the River Wye to Bredwardine, where we enjoyed savoury cream tea at the cafe at Brobury House and Gardens. Then in the humidity of an early afternoon we took a dip in the river, splashing happily and using our clothes to dry ourselves off.
Our last night, in St Mary’s church in Tyberton, was calm and serene. Worn out from a full day, my toddler fell asleep quickly on his air mattress after a picnic dinner, cocooned within a box pew – his own little bedroom.
Rain woke us at 7am, and shortly after breakfast we made our way back to Hereford. The last stretch was just 10 miles and so, with a waterproof cover over the trailer, I took them slowly, luxuriating in winding down the quiet roads outside Madley without seeing another soul.
As I pedalled I looked at the OS map on my phone, the route I’d been following now coming close to full circle. It may not be as artistic as the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral’s grand halls, but it had helped me find the way to a perfect family adventure.
A full cycling itinerary and details about sites en route can be found at Visit Hereford. Drovers Cycles, in Hay-on-Wye, rents e-bikes and will meet you at Hereford station for pick-up and drop-off – from £150 for four days. Night sanctuary is booked in one of nine churches en route via the Abbeydore Deanery with a suggested donation of £20 a night